Cruz Puts Forth Measure to Extend Commercial Spaceflight Learning Period

Sen. Ted Cruz
Sen. Ted Cruz

Against the wishes of federal regulators, the commercial spaceflight industry would get another five years to learn lessons — and, hopefully, actually fly someone into space — under a bill being sponsored by Sen. Ted Cruz (R-TX).

That’s the word from SpaceNews, which says it has obtained a draft of the U.S. Commercial Space Launch Competitiveness Act set for markup on May 20 by the Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee. The measure would extend restrictions on the Federal Aviation Administration’s authority to regulate the still nascent industry until 2020.

The limits were first put in place in 2004, then extended for three years in 2012. They are due to expire on Sept. 30.

George Nield, who heads up the FAA’s Office of Commercial Space Transportation, said six months before the fatal SpaceShipTwo crash last year that he wants the quasi-moratorium to end in September. He said that there are safety regulations that can be formulated based on 50 years of human spaceflight. He added that without some basic regulations, irresponsible companies with poor safety practices can enter the industry.

Industry representatives have been adamant that companies need more time to test and fly their vehicles before the government steps in with regulations.  They largely discount the value of safety lessons learned in previous human spaceflight to their ventures at this stage.

The FAA does have authority to formulate safety rules in response to specific accidents, such as the crash of SpaceShipTwo last October. However, it cannot stray beyond responding to the specifics of a particular accident and formulate rules for the entire industry.

The agency’s main responsibility is to protect the “uninvolved public”, i.e., people on the ground who are not involved in the flight. These regulations focus on safety of spaceport operations and conducted flights over sparsely populated areas.

In the wake of the SpaceShipTwo crash, the FAA said that their efforts to protect the uninvolved public had succeeded. What is not widely known is that those efforts nearly failed. SpaceShipTwo’s cockpit, which contained Mike Alsbury, crashed into a road seconds after two truck drivers had passed the spot driving in opposite directions.

Whether the drivers would have been injured or killed by the debris is uncertain; the outcome would have depended upon exactly where the debris hit the vehicles and protections afforded by the truck cabs. However, it is clear that the sparsely populated desert area where the cockpit crashed had more people in it due to repairs being done on a nearby road and the construction of a solar power farm.

Congress approved the quasi-moratorium in 2004, a year marked by the first successful privately-funded human spaceflights by Mojave Aerospace Ventures’ SpaceShipOne. With Sir Richard Branson’s Virgin Galactic promising commercial passenger service by 2007, Congress approved an eight learning period that would give Virgin Galactic and other operators time to begin flying their vehicles and gain experience before the FAA developed any regulations.

With no one having flown to space during the initial eight-year period, Congress approved a three-year extension in 2012. Since that extension, no crewed spacecraft have traveled anywhere near space even as the death toll in the industry has mounted. Scaled Composites test pilot Mike Alsbury died last October when SpaceShipTwo broke up over the Mojave Desert. Three Scaled employees were killed in a test stand explosion in 2007.